Could NTIA Please Put ICANN Out of Its Misery Before It Embarasses Itself Further.

I mostly follow the ICANN follies from sentimental reasons. Can it really be more than ten years ago when naive Clintonistas conspired with engineers trying to insulate themselves from politics and a slew of bullies from the intellectual property mafia to create what has become a runaway warning to the world about what happens when you have the power to tax and absolutely no oversight? Why, I can remember when ICANN was a modest little operation with a handful of employees and a budget of under $5 million — and we wondered then what they needed all that money for. What is it now? Oh yes, the FY 2009 Budget was $60.7M. Schweet!

ICANN generally trundles along by being insanely technical, insanely boring, insanely complicated, and never doing anything so outrageous that people get rid of it — primarily because no one can agree on what would replace it. Not that ICANN hasn’t had a few close calls, especially back at the World Summit on Information Society. But, just when ICANN appears about to win itself the global governance equivalent of a Darwin Award, hijinks ensue, ICANN eats a little crow, we All Learn A Valuable Lesson In Life, and we start all over again back where we were next season.

In other words, ICANN is kinda like cross between a bad TV sitcom and a reality show. But like so many TV shows with a small-but-devoted fan base, ICANN now finds itself on the bubble waiting to find out if it will be renewed. Sadly, there are signs that ICANN has definitely jumped the shark. And no, I don’t mean the “new kid on the block” addition Rod Beckstrom to boost ratings. I mean recycling the same tired plot line of ICANN staff and Business & IP constituencies trying to limit the ability of the Non-commercial User Constituency (NCUC) to “cause trouble” — especially those meddling civil society do-gooders Milton Mueller and Robin Gross. Season after season, we get to see the same accusations that NCUC is “divisive,” or “not representative” or other code words for “Goddam it! Get those $#@! civil society groups out of our club house!!!!”

More on why NTIA ought to consider canceling this circus once and for all below . . . .

This Season’s Plotline.

This year’s attempt at a plot twist can be found chronicled here on Milton’s Internet Governance Blog. To give some back story, last season saw the introduction of new regularly recurring character Cheryl Preston, who joined the NCUC to advance her Big Issue — censorship. Specifically, Preston thinks ICANN isn’t doing enough of it. But unlike the Business Constituency and IP Constituency (aka “the Popular Kids clique”), who want to censor in the name of trademark and copyright protection, Preston’s issue is censoring based on pornography (aka “won’t somebody please think of the children!”). Since NCUC is mostly composed of hardcore civil liberties groups (because, let’s face it, who else would bother to follow ICANN name policy on the non-commercial side), Preston repeatedly found herself outvoted on any issue and generally mocked, snubbed, flamed, etc. in a kind of Hawkeye Pierce v. Hot Lips Hoolihan way (from the early MASH episodes, back when she was still with Frank Burns).

But this season, Preston got an upgrade from recurring comic relief character to a full member of the ICANN cast. Preston has been embraced by the popular rich kids from Business and IP Constituency and the NCUC hater clique from Staff. For years, the NCUC haters have complained that Milton, Robin and the rest of the NGO Scoobies are “not representative” and therefore should be pushed out and ignored. The problem with this theory was that no one else ever showed up who could be “authentic NCUC” as opposed to the “unauthentic, elitist, latte-sipping civil liberties NCUC.” Preston solved that problem. And, despite the fact that the censorship values are pretty much anathema to most of the Board members and the engineers who form the core of ICANN’s other functions, staff have embraced Preston as “authentic NCUC” with the same fervor the McCain folks embraced Joe the Plumber as an “authentic American” in contrast to all those stupid elitists who liked Obama. Because at this point, there are folks in ICANN staff who would willingly crash the A Root if that’s what it took to finally get Milton and Robin out of ICANN for good.

So after an exceedingly long process of “rechartering” and “restructuring” various ICANN constituencies into “stakeholder groups” (another sign of Jumping the Shark — reorganizing again?), the NCUC had to select between two possible charters. One was developed by the NGO Scoobies, and the other by Preston and the other folks from Slytherin. No surprise, the NGO Scoobs won the science fair/beauty contest/talent show and sent the Slytherins packing. This result did not sit well with the popular kids and NCUC haters on staff. So — in a dramatic mid-season twist at Sydney before going on summer hiatus — they persuaded the ICANN Board to just throw out the new Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG) charter and take the Preston Charter instead. They also got the Board to agree that instead of giving the NCSG the same number of seats on the reconstituted Names Council (or whatever it’s called) as the new Business and IP Stakeholder Group, the Board would appoint 3 representatives themselves. In a tearful scene that had “Emmy bait” written all over it, the cowardly “friends” of the Scoobs admit that they fear the Popular Kids supposed influence in Washington, where their rich daddies control too many Senators and Representatives.

And we know what that means, the popular kids clique and the staff haters will get to appoint Slytherins to the Names Council. Oh no! Is this the end of our heroes? Have the anti-civil society groups finally won? Will the Popular Kids and staff realize their ambition to get rid of those meddling NGO Scoobies for good?

But wait! It turns out our NGO Scoobie heroes are not so helpless after all. As the last part of the season opens, boatloads of International civil society orgs have come in to support the Scoobs. Will this create enough pressure to once again beat back the schemes of the NGO haters on staff and the Popular Kids? Will the Popular Kids get their sugar daddies to buy them a shiny new Vice President fresh off the Senate Judiciary Committee? Or will we see the New Administration embrace Hope & Change ‘n stuff. And, in another “jump the shark” sign, will the Season Finale include a guest appearance from a popular former cast member who left two seasons ago to do bigger projects?

Cancel This Tired Dog, Please?

The bottom line for me, however, is that it really doesn’t matter whether the Scoobs win or not, which is always a bad sign for a show on the bubble. Why? Because nothing ever changes about the ICANN show!!, except its budget. Heck, I’m almost rooting for the Scoobies to lose, just so the Popular Kids can go wild and do all kinds of stuff that finally embarrasses their over-indulgent Hollywood parents and attracts enough attention that they get in big trouble. Because stone-cold guaranteed that without the dampening rods of the NGO Scoobs, this nuclear crap pile would go critical on all kinds of stupid stuff that would actually interfere with the smooth operation of the DNS. But instead, we keep getting season after season where nothing happens and we end up back in the same place with no character growth and no plot advancement.

After more than ten years, this dog has definitely had its day and then some. How much longer do we have to see the same hijinks and plot twists, with increasingly thinner disguises, while the production budget gets bigger and bigger to accommodate the new characters and the shooting at exotic locales. I recommend NTIA Mogul Larry Strickling and the executive producers on the Senate and House Commerce Committee replace this tired concept and go for a new reality show. After all, ICANN was really modeled on “Survivor” and “the Real World,” with perhaps a touch of “who wants to be a millionaire.” I recommend replacing it with something a little more modern. Maybe a cross between “America’s Got Talent” and “Dancing With The DNS Stars,” where policy wonks and IP enthusiasts would be required to show they must coordinate with engineers and other stakeholders without constantly stepping on each others toes.

Stay tuned . . .

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13 Comments

  1. Jess Austin says:

    Great post!

  2. Kieren McCarthy says:

    And your plan for running the domain name system after ICANN has been “cancelled”?
    Kieren McCarthy

  3. Harold says:

    Kieran: <a href=”http://dyao.oxygen.com/“>Dance Your DNS Off</a>.

  4. Chris Croughton says:

    That is a wonderful piece of writing! It works on so many levels, and has me in tears of laughter (as well as ones of pain for the reality behind it)…

  5. Kieren McCarthy says:

    @Harold. That’s what I thought. I think I’ll stick with the Internet continuing to work.

  6. Norbert Klein says:

    Harold writes in a “funny” style but points to a series of real problems of selective and rejected communication over the years. In spite of this, I also still “stick with the Internet continuing to work,” since 1999 in the NCUC and its predecessor. – But Kieren: I had hoped you would say more about the basic problem Harold points to.

  7. Oh, Kieren, old friend, how you have joined the Dark Side. Your acerbic comment is redolent of nostalgia — the fact is that in the days immediately before you took the King’s Shilling from ICANN, this is exactly the sort of article you would have written in The Register.

    Can we have the next ICANN meeting on Ocean Drive, with James Brown as an alien?

    Oh, and by way of serious answer? The registries run the DNS just fine.

    What’s needed is a ‘lightweight, international technical coordinationa body based on a bottom up consensus with full input from all stakeholders’

    What, you say? We’ve got one of those?

    Gosh, must have been asleep the last couple of years.
    The Half-Blood Prince (Slytherin House)

  8. Dan says:

    @Kieren: If the business and IP constituencies get their way, the Internet will cease to continue working. That’s the whole issue in a nutshell. We all want the Internet to work. That means “keeping the core neutral” as it were … if we’re talking about the Internet working for the many and not just the few.

  9. John says:

    Harold,

    Another great post. This one even appears to have some food-fight generating potential, although most parties do seem to agree with you.

  10. Evan says:

    What a steaming pile of cleverness. Too bad it tells only part of the story.

    At-Large, ignored in the rant, is about to get Board seats. At Sydney NCUC and ALAC worked together to help stop the trademark lawyers in their tracks (at least temporarily).

    There *is* more going on to address the needs of registrants and end-users at ICANN than the GNSO soap opera. Asserting that there isn’t is just willful oblivion.

    In any case… the rant needs a better Plan B. If NTIA were to replace ICANN, they’d just create another one. They (and the DOC) *like* the status quo.

  11. whatever says:

    How about NTIA tells Neustar to get off their butts and spend a couple hundred bucks to promote the .US extension.

    Amazing they are stewards of a precious national resource and just sit on it, good accountability there. Unreal.

  12. Jorge says:

    LMAO, fantastic article …

  13. Kieren McCarthy says:

    @Nigel and Dan.

    Sorry – didn’t see your responses until just now.

    I don’t know re: exactly the sort of articles I wrote for The Register. Certainly I had a good rant every now again but I believe I always tried to provide a way out, a solution.

    Maybe not, maybe I’m deluding myself.

    Anyway, you write from where you are, don’t you?

    I think the reason I’m not a big fan of this article is that it doesn’t rant enough – it needs some wild Hunter S Thompson imagery.

    It also contains too many analogies that produce too many threads.

    Anyway, maybe I should just get over myself. I don’t think Harold really foresees or wishes the end of ICANN. Just an end to the tiring politics of it all – and you can count me in on that one.

    Kieren

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